Faith on film generally goes one of two ways: it’s either highly sanitised and cheesy to the point of nausea, or it’s used as the butt of stereotypical jokes that push the faithful toward the social margins.
Mark Wahlberg’s new movie Father Stu breaks away from those conventions, offering up a self-confessed “passion project” that dips into the gritty reality of a real-life boxer-turned-priest whose streetwise past becomes the backbone of a meaningful ministry.
When Stuart Long’s (Mark Wahlberg) boxing career ends abruptly due to injury, he decides to move to LA and become an actor. Easier said than done, Stuart takes up work in a local supermarket where he meets Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) a beautiful Sunday school teacher who captivates his attention, compelling him to stop by the church and try and win her over.
Through their relationship – and a motorcycle accident that nearly kills him – Stuart starts to see God’s hand on his life and commits to becoming a priest and dedicating his time to the service of others. While studying to become a priest, Stu’s diagnosed with a rare and debilitating physical disorder that eventually renders him to a wheelchair, but doesn’t stop him ministering.
Speaking to The National Catholic Register Mark Wahlberg said, “This is a real journey of a real guy that I think can really touch people who may have lost their way”.
It’s a story that Mark was drawn to six years ago, sitting down to dinner with two priests from his own parish.
“Father Ed kept talking about Stu’s story, and Stu’s journey and who Stu was as a person. From that point on it was my mission to get the movie made,” Mark said.
“[Stu] felt like he was touched by God, which was the catalyst for him now being extremely committed to serving God.”
Rod Hopping, CEO of Heritage Films, who have been promoting the movie in Australian alongside Sony, told Hope 103.2, “I think [Father Stu] is a story for us for right now”.
“The content in this movie and Father Stu’s real-life story is definitely one about pain and loss and suffering, and how that shapes him as a person,” Rod said.
With a cast that also includes award-winning actors Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver, Father Stu will appeal to audiences beyond the churchgoing which Rod said “is a real gift”.
Supporting Mark Wahlberg, the cast includes award-winning actors Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver, which is sure to make Father Stu appeal to audiences beyond only churchgoers.
“It creates an opportunity for the audience to be broad, and to linger around Stu’s journey and to find the connection to their own story,” Rod said.
“You don’t have to walk inside the four wall of a church to understand we need hope, and we need the encouragement of others.”
Mark Wahlberg said, “As Stu’s physicality started to deteriorate, his spirituality started to soar, and made his mission to bring hope that much more clear.”
“As Stu’s physicality started to deteriorate, his spirituality started to soar, and made his mission to bring hope that much more clear,” – actor Mark Wahlberg
In many ways Mark found his own sense of mission in making this movie, personally funding it and wanting it to be a reflection of his own devotion and gratitude toward God.
“I’ve always been kind of thinking about: ‘How do I continue to pay for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon me?’” Mark said.
“I know God didn’t put me in this position to kind of forget about where I came from.
“I’ve been doing lots of stuff in my own community where I grew up and worked with inner-city kids and at-risk youth [but] I’ve always been kind of saying, “OK, what is my mission? What is my purpose?’.
“I wanted to honour Stu’s legacy and the courage that he had, and the conviction that he had. Stu was a fighter. He was a messenger,” he said.
Being based on true-to-life events, Father Stu doesn’t shy away from the broken family relationships Stu experienced, or the language used among them and his peers, but its this authenticity that makes the movie stand out from the niche fare many Christian audiences are used to being exposed to.
Father Stu is rated MA15+ and is in cinemas now.
Listen to Rod Hopping’s full interview with Laura Bennett in the player above.
Trailer warning: minor coarse language and adult themes